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Top Movies of the Decade #4

4. I’m Not There

It’s fitting that “I’m Not There” was made in the first few years of the 21st century, as Bob Dylan has to be considered one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the 20th century.  Upon re-watching it, I felt like the film was moving beyond depicting a confusing, complicated, controversial, conflicted, and contradictory man and was describing an era that could be described using those same words.  Hang on to this one, National Film Registry:  when we come back in 500 years and try to understand the 20th century, this film will be key.

Here’s my original review:

There is a well-established formula for the biopic.   Hero grows up hard, hero works hard to get noticed,  hero becomes successful, success goes to hero’s head and hero drives away someone who’s been there with hero from the beginning, hero crashes hard, hero repents, hero achieves glory again (or never repents, and dies tragically.)   It might be difficult to believe that folks as different as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Edith Piaff have such strikingly similar life stories, but there you go.   According to Hollywood anyway, the road to screen immortality may be full of twists and turns, but once you’re on it, you should pretty much know what the landmarks will look like.

Todd Haynes’ ode to Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There,”  flies so firmly in the face of that formual that I’m not even sure it can be called a biopic.   Is this really the story of Bob Dylan?  His name is never mentioned.   Six different actors play six different characters that somehow must add up to one biographed singer.    I wonder what would happen if someone from, say, Singapore saw this film — someone with no prior knowledge of Dylan and the American mythology that surrounds him.   Would he be able to figure out what the film is about?   Would he connect the young, black Woody Guthrie character to the divorced, fame-weary Robbie Clark?  Or would he simply see this as an ensemble drama, about different aspects of the American psyche?

Strangely enough, creating an ensemble drama about different aspects of the American psyche may be the simplest, most compelling, most honest way to make a movie about Bob Dylan.    The man has been called a chameleon, a fake, both a trend follower and a trendsetter, but it’s my opinion that he is perhaps the most transparent (or reflective) performer in American history.   Project something on to him, whatever it might be, and you find it is refracted back to you in some unforgettable way.    I love Dylan’s music, especially that golden period between 1964-66, yet I’m never sure what he’s singing about.  I wasn’t even alive then.  Still, the songs rattle around in my head, and show up at strange moments.  They’ve made an impression.  You get what you give.

There’s really no way to summarize the plot here, because “I’m Not There” is all about characters and the songs they sing.   The six characters who are Dylan are:

  • Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young black boy riding the trains and playing Blind Lemon Jefferson songs,
  • Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a well-dressed 19 year old who either narrates the saga or testifies to some unseen tribune,
  • Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a facsimilie of Greenwich Village – era Dylan,
  • Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), the plugged in, Blonde on Blonde Dylan,
  • Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), who I think is supposed to represent Dylan after the motorcycle wreck, when he disappeared from the public eye and just made country albums, and
  • Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger,) a movie star who bears a lot of similiarities to Blood on the Tracks Dylan.

A lot of fuss has been made about Cate Blanchett crossing genders to play her Dylan, but her performance gives us a character who is so deeply hidden inside himself that gender and sexuality become non-issues.   Christian Bale is, surprisingly, probably the worst Dylan; he seems stuck in imitation and never able to really manage any true acting.   Billy the Kid seems to inhabit a world borrowed wholesale from Tim Burton; it’s hard to find the emotional center of this part of the movie.   Heath Ledger emotes the most, and the best; his Dylan might be closest to the Hollywood biopic stereotype, but it’s also the easiest character to identify with.    And in a movie as strange and compelling as this one, it’s good to find a character who feels somewhat familiar.

If ever there was movie that will benefit from a commentary track, this is it.  Haynes litters the screen with offhand references – to Dylan’s life, his music, the Sixties, to the folk music/folk rock/country folk scene.    I caught a few of them.  I’m sure I missed many more.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of “I’m Not There” is that it mirrors that eerie, almost-subconscious effect that Dylan’s best music has on us.   At the end, I wasn’t sure quite what I’d seen.   Did it make sense?   Was there a point?  A progression?  Something I could agree or disagree with?   No, not so much.  But just like listening to “Fourth Time Around,”  when it was over, I was tempted to hit the repeat button and let it roll over me one more time.

Recommended

  • if Bob Dylan wrote the soundtrack to your life.
  • if you’ve grown tired of the traditional biopic formula.
  • if sometimes you feel like you’ve been several different people through the course of your life.

Not Recommended

  • if you’re expecting a film like “Ray,” or “Walk the Line.”
  • if you don’t know much about Bob Dylan, and don’t care to.
  • if crossdressing offends you deeply.
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